Directed by: Roman Polanski
Released by: The Criterion Collection
Review By: Matthew Dean Hill
Recommended DVD Source: Available Everywhere
Technical: B&W; 1.66:1 Widescreen, 16x9 enhanced; English; Monaural; Running Time 105 minutes; MPAA Rating "Unrated" (released Pre-MPAA); Region 1 NTSC; One Disc
Ya' know those familiar shots that always appear in horror movies? The shots where hands reach out of walls to grab people? The close-ups of eyes? The use of cracking plaster and peeling wallpaper to signify emotional breakdown or other decay? Distorted reflections? Elongating shadows? Roach's-eye inexplicable POV shots? The list goes on and on. Well, those shots had to have originated somewhere, of course. I would contend that, while Roman Polanski's exemplary horror film Repulsion might not have been, strictly speaking, the first to use any one of those shots, it most certainly used them to best effect, and to such a narrative-enhancing extent that the film has become his personal high water mark, against which everything that followed would (and should) be judged. Listen I don't care what you think about "Polanski the man". He's certainly a controversial figure, but one thing is absolutely beyond doubt - he was (and probably still is) an incredibly gifted filmmaker, with an artisan's perspective of madness, paranoia, sexual and emotional isolation, and the utter frailty of humanity. Put simply, nobody does stuff like this better than Polanski. As the first film in Polanski's so-called "apartment triolgy" (three somewhat thematically-linked films which would continue with Rosemary's Baby and finish with The Tenant; each of which featuring an urban apartment setting where the apartments themselves are "characters" in the stories), he laid a really solid foundation upon which he could spread out his tools and really get busy making scary, thought-provoking, and thoroughly engrossing post-Psycho horror movies that must have really had people shrieking down the aisles. Perhaps most importantly, Polanski made each of these films quite socially-relevant for their respective release dates; thus, he created not only incredibly effective films, but also sociologically important and indelible documents of their times. At the risk of outright hyperbole, it's likely that no other director of "horror movies" has accomplished this with quite as much sheer skill and audacity across three films as has Polanski (with the possible exception of George A. Romero, and maybe David Cronenberg). But, in all fairness, even without the "concluding chapters" or "episodes" in the apartment trilogy, Repulsion remains a profoundly creepy, beautifully shot, tightly-structured, and ridiculously well-acted movie all on its own. The influence of Repulsion's portrayal of paranoia, creeping madness and sexual repression, and those beautiful, trippy fucking shots are in a class by themselves. The film is not merely one of Polanski's stronger works, not merely the creator of vivid cinematic archetypes; it's an archetype unto itself.
Beautiful, frail, virginal, mousy, beautiful, waifish, beautiful, nervous, fucking ridiculously gorgeous manicurist Carole (Catherine Deneuve, at arguably the pinnacle of her sheer, ethereal, utter fucking gorgeousness) is a young Belgian woman sharing an apartment with her somewhat older, much more worldly sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux, who's certainly no slouch in the sheer beauty department) in swingin' 1960's London. Right out of the gate, it's perfectly evident that there's something not quite right with Carole; she's distant, twitchy, and more reserved and quiet than normal, even for a reserved and quiet person. In stark contrast, Helen is outgoing...sure of herself. She's in a more or less "normal" adult relationship with a somewhat older man named Michael (Ian Hendry), who seems to "sleep over" a bit too often for Carole's liking, to the extent that Carole actually disposes of Michael's toothbrush and shaving kit. Clearly, Carole isn't so fond of Michael...or perhaps more accurately, she's not so fond of someone taking up space in her relationship with Helen. Though Carole takes a cursory stab at an adult relationship herself, it's clear that she's just not cut out for close interpersonal relationships, and that she has an inherent distrust in men. Frankly, it's no small wonder that she distrusts dudes to this degree; she's leered at by every man in London (including Helen's lover). I know, you're saying, "Oh Carole, you poor, poor ridiculously hot chick...why ever doth the world treat you so cruelly thus?" Well, whatever, she's got it rough, or at least rougher than she can handle. So, she slowly, subtly starts to become unraveled. At first, it's just a vague disconnection from her surroundings and an indifference to people and things. Soon, though, she's descending into a more tangible madness; the world and its inhabitants become mocking, threatening parodies, and Carole's perceptions and deeply repressed desires start to get the best of her. When Helen and her beau take off for an extended vacation and leave an incredibly depressed Carole to her own devices, Carole's madness finally takes a firm, and I dare say, violent grip. She's still fucking hot, though.
Seriously, though...I may have made light of the storyline in that previous paragraph, but the movie itself is deadly serious, and it earns every bit of it. Polanski has filled every corner of Carole's world with peeling paint, cracking plaster, leering men, and highly evil cracks in the sidewalk (!) that tease and torment Carole from every angle. Even a nearby church bell, which might be a pretty, flighty, and even vaguely comforting sound to most people, becomes a cacophonous harbinger of sexual violence and hysteria (whether real or imagined). Steadily...patiently, Polanski builds the suspense, and our sympathies for poor Carole, even though she's a total nutbag. No good reason is given for this, other than the suggestion that Carole has always been a little "different" and aloof (illustrated by the closing images of Carole as a child in a family photograph, where she stands well away from the rest of the family. I mean, Jesus Christ, the girl can't even have a normal human relationship in an old photograph, much less in real life. When all is said and done, Carole isn't a bad girl, she's just incredibly confused, and highly disturbed. She needs to be in professional care, not alone in a decaying apartment. Polanski's point here seems to be that even fiendishly attractive blonde Belgian women are prone to severe mental illness. OK, maybe it's more along the lines of "a society that emotionally and sexually objectifies women on such a fundamental level shouldn't really be all that fucking shocked when one of them goes absolutely bonkers and kills a bunch of people". Or something. Whatever. It just works, and it's scary, highly fascinating stuff.
As mentioned previously, the real craft of Repulsion is how it visually represents schizophrenia. I've known schizophrenic folks, and each of them has corroborated the imagery of Repulsion by stating that, in fact, it's utterly indicative of the affliction, at least as much as it can be given the medium. Polanski's done a remarkable thing if taken only at that level, but no, this is also a purely cinematic work. It's beautifully constructed, making fantastic use of space to both generate isolation, and to close in and evoke utter, cramped despair. The apartment here becomes a vast sea of doors and seemingly endless hallways, where shadows extend to the horizon and light stabs through the darkness to reveal glimpses of horrible, horrible truths. While that may sound all poetic and everything, trust me...I'm being totally on the level with you. Repulsion's landscape is both a workaday urban living space, and a hellhole of almost Bosch-ian proportions. It straddles between the middle and right panels of "The Garden of Earthly Delights", in fact. Both limbo and purgatory, but never, ever heavenly. It's an utter masterpiece for the way it uses space, shadow, light, perception, and sexuality, and in how it turns them on their ends. At the time, the idea of an unhinged woman had certainly been explored; films like The Snake Pit, Suddenly, Last Summer, and maybe even Sunset Boulevard had waded in those waters previously, to varying extents. But here was one of the first truly vivid portrayals of a woman not on the verge, but well past the point of breaking. We don't even see the moment that she "breaks". I think it happened in the womb, frankly. Carole was never a normal girl, with normal, well-adjusted desires or a healthy self image. Though again, fucking hot.
Naturally, while most of the complexity of Repulsion lies within Polanski's inspired direction, it would be a mistake to assume that this same story, the same shocking duality, would have been possible with any other actress in the role of Carole. Aside from being exceptionally, ridiculously fucking gorgeous, Deneuve is a phenomenal actress. Her dialogue is scant, but it she doesn't need to say much to get the point across. The things she does with body language...subtle facial movements, and brushing things away from her face that just don't exist...she's entirely physical. Carole doesn't know how to be anything else. For all her beauty (hot) and evident physical maturity, Carole is a child, and a horribly lonely, awkward one at that. In all honesty, Deneuve's performance in Repulsion rivals the very best of its kind. That's not hype, man, that's just a plain fact. Of course, the supporting cast are quite strong as well, notably John Fraser as Carole's put-upon and highly frustrated would-be boyfriend. He desperately wants to understand what's going on with Carole; he really does like the girl. Of course, he also really wants a shag, but yeah, he likes her a great deal, too. Poor guy. Oh, and if ever a category called "Best Performance by a Rotting Rabbit Carcass" existed, the rotting rabbit carcass from Repulsion would be the penultimate winner of that dubious honor. Just sayin'. He shall henceforth be known as "Squishy the Dead Rabbit". He was much more than a nasty little rotting thing on a plate, drawing flies. He perfectly symbolized Carole's former innocence and sanity, laid bare, utterly destroyed, and slowly disintegrating like, well, like a rotting rabbit carcass. Kudos to you, Squishy, wherever you may be.
Roman Polanski pulled off a pretty amazing thing, here, given that what he was hired to direct what was to be a cheap, tawdry horror flick. It was to be his break into the mainstream of the time, after his initial success with the exemplary Knife in the Water. The producer and distributor, no doubt, got much more than they had ever dreamed. Sure, it's still tawdry as hell, but it's also psychologically deep, really freaky, and incredibly well shot. What they didn't realize...couldn't have realized...at the time was just how influential and important this cheap little horror flick would prove to be. In no small way, it helped to bridge the gap from the old-school monsters, aliens, and big-bug movies of the late 1950's to more modern, sociologically-significant, and risqué horror films, like Night of the Living Dead and others. It was a horror film for adults, not kids hanging around the matinee on a Saturday afternoon. It's also, as such, a source of pride for the English; whereas it was initially met, of course, with great controversy, it has since become something of a historical badge of honor for the English film industry.
I mean, what the hell are you going to say? It's a proper Criterion Collection release, innit? Previously available on DVD in the States only in a shoddy, movie-only edition with a horrible transfer (it seriously looked like someone used a cheap camcorder to record the image directly from a half-broken television), the fact that Criterion has bothered to give us a gorgeous, properly-matted 1.66:1 "director-approved" transfer is reason enough to buy this release. But no, being Criterion, you can expect the best and most prolific bonus and supplementary features available. First up is the characteristically-buoyant and informative commentary track from Roman Polanski and Catherine Deneuve. Whereas it's clear that the two recorded their tracks at different times, it's still a great track, filled with wonderful anecdotes, technical information, musings, and remembrances. Again, you might not like Polanski as a human being, but there's no denying his power as a filmmaker, and to hear him talk about Repulsion is like listening to a man speaking of his first love. But wait, there's more. There are two lengthy documentaries. The first, a 1964 piece filmed for French TV (in French but handily English-subbed), features a huge amount of on-set footage of Polanski directing an intense Deneuve, and other goodies. The second is a modern piece from 2003 entitled "A British Horror Film", which blends contemporary interviews with the director and the producer, as well as many other key participants. A collection of trailers round out the on-disc supplements, but there is also a nice booklet enclosed in the jewelcase, which features an essay by film scholar Bill Horrigan, talking about Repulsion in an informative, but significantly less vivacious way than I've tried to here. All around a fitting release for one of Polanski's best films. Repulsion isn't just an Atrocities Cinema Essential, but it's absolutely required viewing for horror fans and cinema snobs alike. Seek it out, and view it repeatedly. Oh, and did I mention that Catherine Deneuve is fucking gorgeous?
- Matthew Dean Hill - March 3, 2011
The Atrocities Cinema Scoreboard(ranks out of five)